Life & Culture

Remembering Johnny Thunders Through Those Who Knew Him

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. album, we remember the punk musician through five people who encountered him or have been inspired by him

Strung-out stringer Nick Kent, once the living embodiment of depravity, recalled Johnny Thunders in his classic New York Dolls profile as a “fearless little motherfucker”. Coming from a man who, in the 70s, hung out with such menacing badasses as Keith Richards and Iggy Pop, that brusque description is enough to make one’s hairs stand on end.

With his battered TV yellow Les Paul guitar, Johnny Thunders – once a wide-eyed John Anthony Genzale Junior from Queens, New York – rose from spotty Stones fan to scuzzy hellion with the New York Dolls. Strutting about on the filthy streets of Manhattan and stages around the world like it was no one’s business, Thunders was a sight – and sound – to behold. Even dolled up in pseudo-drag, sporting a shiny pair of hooker heels, he looked like he could instil fear and terror into the likes of his hero Keef. The lanky Italian kid seemed as if he’d come from another planet; “somethin’ else”, as Eddie Cochran would have said, had he been around to hear his shot-to-hell guitar cutting through the speakers like a rusty blade.

Both as a New York Doll and a solo artist with his outfit the Heartbreakers, Thunders simply oozed rock and roll from every sordid pore. That, however, wasn’t the only thing coursing through his veins; like the drug-addled heroes who’d stolen his heart as a baseball-loving boy, Thunders had a serious smack problem. Or, rather, smack had a serious problem with him – so much so, that it often overshadowed everything else in his life, including his musical legacy. At times, he even glorified his addiction himself with songs such as Chinese Rocks and Too Much Junkie Business. Too much, indeed.

While heroin certainly deteriorated Thunders’ health, it wasn’t what sounded the death knell for him in 1991 at only 38. Thunders, in fact, had turned to methadone to get off the horse; but, as fate would have it, he was also battling leukaemia. And so, one April’s day, the musician was found dead in a seedy New Orleans hotel just as he’d so often felt in his troubled, yet brilliant life: alone.

His legacy, of course, lives on. This November and December, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Thunders’ 1977 L.A.M.F. (Like a Motherfucker) album, star-studded gigs in New York City and Los Angeles will take place with members of the Heartbreakers, Blondie, the Sex Pistols, and other groups performing the album in its entirety. To delve more into Thunders’ enduring influence on all levels, Another Man reached out to not only those who knew the man in his heyday, but also some of today’s pretty young things who have looked to him for inspiration, too.

Alan Edwards, renowned British publicist and former PR manager of the Heartbreakers

“My recollection of Johnny is a friendly, cheeky, cocky, charming guy. He had an amazing way with women – not surprising, as he was the archetypal dark, good-looking, handsome guy with a winning smile. In fact, someone I knew very well had been dating him and she, like all the others, was smitten. The junkie side was there, but unless you were hanging out with him after hours, I guess you wouldn’t have been exposed to it. He was usually on pretty good behaviour around me.

I remember once organising a breakfast at the famous Joe Allen’s Eatery in Covent Garden with Tony Parsons. Tony was then a young NME gunslinger keen to get an interview with Johnny … So, it was with some expectations and a funny whirring cassette player that Tony and I had tucked into an omelette [that we] awaited the arrival of Johnny. When he did finally show, he was definitely the worse for wear and, before the interview even got properly underway, he threw up all over the table and, of course, the trusty recording device! I don’t recall anyone being that shocked or surprised ... ”

Albert Hammond Jr., The Strokes

“I was 18 and living in Manhattan. I first heard of Johnny Thunders while reading Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. I knew nothing of him, but he looked like the coolest guy I’d ever seen. The suits, the hair … And, he was also a Jr., so …

He’s like a code word you use to get into a club. His name is probably more well-known than what people know about him … He should be recognised for his playing and style. It’s sad when drugs go from inspiration to degradation – that’s the hardest part to reconcile. All the swagger and music he had in him without all the junk … He defined a time, but never broke free of it. Like many bands of that time, if the music was done today, it would sound modern. I miss the balls, the danger, the sex appeal in music then. We lack that in our modernness.”

“I went to see the Faces at Wembley, and, lo and behold, the New York Dolls were playing … They were just fantastic. It was a real sea change moment in my life” – Glen Matlock

Glen Matlock, The Sex Pistols

“I was only 15-and-a-half … I went to see the Faces at Wembley, and, lo and behold, the New York Dolls were playing … They were just fantastic. It was a real sea change moment in my life. I remember Johnny broke a string, and didn’t have a spare guitar … He put on the string on the middle of the stage, and [the amp’s] turned up full, and he’s going, woooonk woooonk woooonk! … Then they started playing the same song again, and he broke a string again, and had to go through it all again. It was kind of funny, though, because they just had so much fun.

I remember, we were supposed to be rehearsing for this tour of Japan we were going to do, and I went to Stockholm, and we were out in the suburbs. His girlfriend Suzanne would get up and go to work as a hairdresser, and we’d just light up a joint and watch Starsky and Hutch in Swedish, or something like that … I [also] remember sitting around his flat, and he showed me some videos [of himself], and [laughs] he walked out onstage and tripped over, and he said, ‘Hey! I always do that deliberately so people think I’m out of it.’

Johnny was really quite shy, and I think everything he did was kind of like, to get him onstage, you know? A bit of Dutch courage.”

Adam Slack, The Struts

“When I think of Johnny Thunders, the first thing I think of is a battered old TV yellow Les Paul Junior. I think it was so iconic to his sound, and the look of that guitar summed up Johnny himself: one pick-up, dirty, battered, and full of emotion. Being a Junior player myself, I actually had a similar guitar made to replicate it!

I think the punk rock ethos is always going to be associated with Johnny. I think he inspired a lot of newer punk rock through the 90s, as [his music] was so melodic at the time, but also had so much edge to it. I think of bands like Green Day, whom I know have been inspired by his work – especially his solo stuff, rather than the New York Dolls. Listening to So Alone, you can really hear him as an artist coming into his own, and the pop melodies, along with the drug-fuelled music, still live on [in] one of the best rock albums today.

[Johnny’s] legacy will always be within the punk community and rock and roll in general – from his iconic look with the Keith Richards hair, to his amazing Les Paul Junior. [From] his work with the Dolls and beyond, he is a staple in rock and roll history. I think his best work was You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory, which has been covered time and time again – and will [be] forever more.”

“When you read about his life, it becomes impossible to listen to the records without imagining the other ones he could have made” – Faris Badwan

Faris Badwan, The Horrors

“Even before you get to his inspiration guitar playing, visually, Johnny Thunders was the ultimate punk musician. He was the embodiment of danger, and, unsurprisingly, had a short life. He was a man of total extremes. Even the name he chose was almost [cartoonish] in its dramatism.

His appearance spawned a thousand imitators, many of them icons in their own right: Sid Vicious, Nikki Sixx … Half of Camden today owes a great deal of its appearance and even demeanour to Thunders. But, above all else, his guitar tone was inimitable. Punk isn’t known for its subtlety, but Thunders squeezed his entire conflicted personality into every note.

Anyone who wants to hear him at his best should get Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers – Live at Max’s Kansas City. Then, you have the solo record So Alone, and the covers record he made with Patti Palladin of Snatch, Copy Cats. However, several great albums can’t hide the fact that his is a sad and tragic legacy, and the cartoon Johnny Thunders persona that he spent his later years trying to outrun is unfortunately the only one that endures. When you read about his life, it becomes impossible to listen to the records without imagining the other ones he could have made.”